Gesture Abuse

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In  the chapter on Gesture in “Reading Like a Writer,” Prose says: “Perhaps I should say that my definition of gesture includes small physical actions, often unconscious or semi-reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentous actions. I would not call picking up a gun and shooting someone a gesture. On the other hand, language—that is, word choice—can function as a gesture: the way certain married refer to their spouses as him or her is a sort of gesture communication passion, intimacy, pride, annoyance, tolerance, or some combination of the above.”

In the story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” Flannery O’Connor is very descriptive. Through his vivid descriptions he makes it so easy to picture settings and characters in our mind. In fact, he describes each character in his story so explicitly that he inevitably uses gestures to continue his descriptions. Throughout the story, he bounces back and forth between description and gesture, peppering in at least one or the other (and often both) into every single sentence.

Flannery begins the story with multiple descriptions and gestures. In the very first line, he says: “All week end the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter and getting so red and hot that they were positively ugly, particularly Joanne who had spots on her face anyway.”

“Temple One” and “Temple Two” are gestures similar to Prose’ example of “him” or “her” being intimacy gestures for a married couple. In addition, “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” are also gestures. These gestures get O’Connor’s message across more eloquently and pointedly than any description could. We know immediately that these two girls have a close connection since not only do they have pet names for each other but even their pet names are tied together (the names themselves reminded me of Disney’s Thing One and Thing Two). Then in the same sentence “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” gives the reader images of hilarity and an overall giddy BFF-ness that cannot be misinterpreted. These two are not just friends; they are best friends.

Prose also says: “Even the greatest writers may use stock gestures or employ gesture badly.” When O’Connor writes, on page 462, “…and the child was convulsed afresh, threw herself backward in her chair, fell out of it, rolled on the floor and lay there heaving” is a good example of this. It was just too much. While each phrase is familiar and gets the message across that the child was hysterical, the sum unfortunately breaks the believability of the story. Basically, he went too far with the gestures. 

As I grow as a writer, I’m learning that overusing gestures, putting them where they don’t belong or stuffing them in useless spots where they do nothing for story progression are all easy things to do. Perhaps too easy.

Prose explains:  “Too often gestures are used as markers, to create beats and pauses in a conversation that, we fear, may rush by too quickly.” I do this all the time. In a misguided attempt to find a nice cadence, I often lean on gestures. I wasn’t aware of it until now but I’m guilty. To break up dialogue or to add action where none exists I’ll throw in the unnecessary hair flip or the occasional eye-roll. I shudder to think how many times I’ve made a character glance down at the floor or sigh in disbelief. Not only do I agree with Prose that we employ gestures when we’re seeking a certain rhythm but I think we also lean on them during times when we’re simply at a loss for action.

I want to keep this lesson and some others in the forefront of my mind as I approach my revisions. Reading Prose’ chapter on gestures and realizing that even highly successful writers, at times, lean too heavily on, overuse and downright abuse gestures altogether is helping me come to terms with my own gesture addiction.

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